MOSES organic conference – recap

I spent part of last week at a large organic agriculture conference in La Crosse, WI, organized and hosted by the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service. Over 2,000 people attended the three days of workshops, talks, research presentations, and more. The event captured so much of the energy, initiative, philosophy, and value of the local and organic agriculture movement that I think it’s a proper place to kick off this blog.

It’s hard to know where to begin when raving about this conference. First, unique among conferences I’ve been to, they put their money where their mouth is. MOSES provided three meals a day and constant drinks and snacks, all sourced from organic and local ingredients, mostly served on real glass and dishware. It’s rare to find an organization that actually practices what it preaches, especially in the details. It’s the first travel in a long time where I haven’t wished I’d brought my own food. From a culinary perspective, not all the food was that special, but there are limits to culinary achievement when feeding that many people, and the value of the food’s sourcing more than made up for any drawbacks.

Second, the conference draws and serves a very large constituency that made it fascinating and inspiring for everyone involved. I was able to interact with everyone from small homestead types to mid-size dairy operators to thousand-acre-plus grain farmers. The latter were particularly worth talking to, as over and over they told the same story: they’d grown up and starting farming in the chemical/GMO era, were seeing that it just wasn’t working any more, and wanted to find a new way that let them preserve their land, lessen their dependancy on corporate interests, and return their farms to the values they remembered or found worthwhile.

Although much of the energy and public face of the local/organic movement is focused on small farmers, it’s these big grain farmers that will really drive changes. They’re the ones that governments and corporations listen to; they have the clout to really change things on the market side. When they start to revolt in large numbers, it will make waves that no amount of small market growers can achieve on their own. There are those in the small farm/organic/slow food community who seem to see grain farmers as inherently evil or corrupt, forgetting that a lot of these folks are trapped in a system they didn’t create, and are only now seeing a way out.

It was truly inspiring to hear their stories, and thank them for taking on risks in switching to organic that we small farmers may not truly appreciate. Organic and conventional market growers can often market their products in the same places and use the same infrastructure; the differences are as much philosophical as they are economic or cultural. But talking to these larger grain farmers really helped me understand what an undertaking it is to go organic in a field dominated by corporate, industrial agriculture. You have to find your own market for your crops; the local elevator won’t touch you. You have little support, since the local dealers and suppliers don’t know or value organic methods and supplies, and most of your neighbors think you’re crazy. You have to survive through the 2-3 years of transitional status, when you can’t get the higher organic price but you’re doing the extra, risky work to maintain organic status. It’s just a different world from small market farming, and I appreciated the value of a conference that helped such different folks come together and understand one another better.

Finally, (though I could go on for much longer), the conference really captured the overall energy, growth, and value of local food production. Although it’s billed as an “organic” conference, it generally took a broader view toward the value of local food systems and supporting small family farmers than on hammering home organic methods. There was plenty of opportunity to learn more about organic farming, but not in a pushy or exclusive way. When I spoke up in a forum on local foods to argue that such initiatives should NOT be exclusively organic, and should include all types of small farmers so that the consumer can decide, it was met with much agreement and no argument. It was nice to be involved with so many folks whose philosophy was broad and inclusive, not narrow and partisan. Most small, conventional growers would have felt comfortable, and that’s important.

The conference was really focused on the Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa), where small farm and local food support networks and culture are far stronger, but there were some of us from others areas that have farther to go. Next year I’d really like to arrange a larger Missouri contingent to attend together, so that we can all be inspired and educated by the example of these pioneering states and communities.